The Long Tail of CSR:
When Smaller is Bigger
Blog by Wayne Visser
Is bigger always better or can we still say ‘small is beautiful’, as the pioneering economist E.F. Schumacher argued way back in 1973? Certainly, the ‘muesli-eating, sandal-wearing’ New Age approach to small-is-beautiful has been rather more of an advert for ‘small is groovy, but ultimately ineffectual’. But what if we could do both big and small at the same time?
I discussed the issue of scalability with Simon Zadek, a widely respected thought leader on the civil corporation and accountability, who posed the rhetorical question: ‘Is scale large institutional functionality, or is it a flotilla of little boats?’ This is where Chris Anderson’s Web 2.0 concept of ‘the long tail’ is very useful. The Long Tail – named after the extended tail of a statistical distribution curve – is the idea that selling less to more people is big business. It’s the business model that has spawned the most successful companies of the Web 2.0 age. The Long Tail questions the conventional wisdom that says success is about generating ‘blockbusters’ and ‘superstars’ – those rare few products and services that become runaway bestsellers.
Anderson sums up his message by saying that: 1) the tail of available variety is longer than we think; 2) it’s now within reach economically; and 3) all those niches, when aggregated, can make up a significant market. He also notes that this Long Tail revolution has been made possible by the digital age, which has dramatically reduced the costs of customised production and niche distribution. There are three enablers of successful long tail businesses, according to Anderson: 1) democratising the tools of production (e.g. digi-cams, content editing software, blogging tools); 2) democratising the tools of distribution (e.g. Amazon, eBay, iTunes, Netflix); and 3) connecting supply and demand (e.g. Google, blogs, Rotten Tomatoes).
So I got to wondering: Is there a Long Tail of CSR? And if so, what does it look like? To me, the Long Tail of CSR is all about extending the reach of CSR, and improving its ability to satisfy specific social and environmental needs. Let’s use Anderson’s enablers as a framework for thinking about this.
Democratising the tools of CSR production
This is about breaking CSR silos and extending CSR beyond multinationals. At the early stages of CSR adoption, it is often confined to Public Relations, Corporate Affairs or Marketing departments. As CSR implementation matures, responsibility tends to migrate to specialised CSR departments of various descriptions (environment, health & safety, accountability, corporate citizenship, etc.). However, these versions of CSR are like the Hollywood model of blockbuster films. They suggest that CSR is about a few, high visibility programmes that are designed by CSR experts and delivered by big companies.
By contrast, democratising CSR production would mean firstly embedding CSR across the organisation – making it the responsibility of operations managers, financial managers, shop floor workers, basically everyone. This is only possible if CSR becomes part of the culture and incentive systems of an organisation. CSR would also need to be extended beyond the usual suspects (i.e. the high profile, branded multinationals) to the less visible B2B (business to business) and national (rather than multinational) organisations, as well as to SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises) and down the supply chain …
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Cite this blog
Visser, W. (2012) The Long Tail of CSR: When Smaller is Bigger, Wayne Visser Blog Briefing, 27 March 2012.